Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Review: Quand les Belges se battaient pour Napoléon, 1813-1814

Quand les Belges se battaient pour Napoléon, 1813-1814
Quand les Belges se battaient pour Napoléon, 1813-1814 by Declercq, Jacques

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although the subject is interesting, this book falls short of what I had hoped it would be: a view on Napoleonic warfare through the eyes of Flemish and Walloon soldiers.

In fact this book is mostly an account of the operations of the 5th Corps of La Grande Armée in 1813 and early 1814. The account even stops when the 5th Corps ceases to exist, while the regiments are incorporated into the 11th Corps in 1814.

There is too little in terms of personal accounts of those involved to really make this book stand out. As an operational study it is however interesting because it follows the corps throughout the 1813 campaign, while in most books on the campaign the focus shifts away every time Napoleon is away.

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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Tell Me: Should I Review For Osprey?

A few weeks ago, Osprey advertised they are seeking bloggers and reviewers that wish to receive Osprey books to review.

I guess I would be qualified (by their not too demanding standards) because I already read lots of Ospreys and have published over a dozen reviews on this blog and commented on a bunch more on Goodreads.  What makes it an extremely tempting offer is that the coming months will see quite a few interesting volumes, from Malplaquet to Quatre Bras and Waterloo (not a very great distance in Euclidian space).

There might be a point of being forced to read books that I wouldn't read otherwise, but I think I could get over that.

The biggest issue is of course whether I can maintain my independent opinion in the face of receiving free books. I would be open about which books I have received for free, of course. But warning your audience is not always enough.

I have been quite critical of some Osprey publications, especially its anglocentrism and I think I would continue to be, but it might dull my edge. In fact, my critical approach might also be a reason for Osprey not to send me any books, but that would be a telling decision on what it seeks to achieve. For that reason, it would be interesting just to try.

But I'd like to know what you think. How do you approach reviews where you know the author has received a free copy? Would it also affect what you think of reviews that were written about books I paid for? And do you think I should let myself in with this at all?

Monday, 16 June 2014

Review: Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon: A Political Life
Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Epic biography of Napoleon, focussing on his acts as a statesman and on his political philosophy. While acknowledging that his military exploits laid the foundations for Napoleon's fame and political power, Englund argues that his political feats were as impressive and much longer lasting than his military legacy.

Writing about Napoleon's motivations and ideas is extremely difficult as Napoleon has tried so hard to influence his historiography. It also implies judgments on whether Napoleon was a heart a cynical and opportunistic power player or somebody who tried to stick to certain principles. Or whether he changed from one into the other and in which period?

I think Englund has done a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff. This Napoleon is much more interesting than the Corsican Ogre and Napoleon le Grand. This is almost a human being. Even if it's a man of uncommon talent, intelligence and energy. There are weaknesses, errors of judgment, post hoc rationalisations and petty insults enough to balance the scales.

That doesn't mean that an interesting version of Napoleon is more true than other versions. It just rings more true to my vision of how people, even Great Persons, are. That, probably is the great attraction of Napoleon: everybody can find in him the man we long to see.

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Sunday, 1 June 2014

NYR May Update

The NYR was a bit slow this month, although I didn't buy any games, and mostly books I was allowed to buy (ie Napoleonics). The holidays wreaked havoc with my free time early in the month and I was also out with an infection for a couple of days by the end.

I didn't get too much done for The Book. I read the new biography of Blücher and two books by Michael Broers. First his exciting book about armed opposition to Napoleon's empire and then his great book about the empire itself. Add to that a detailed account of the deposition of Louis Bonaparte as King of Holland and the annexation of the Netherlands into the Napoleonic empire and you get an idea of where my interest was headed this month. And I had a very good session with my co-authors last week which inspired me.

Some new acquisitions
I didn't play a lot of board games, as my regular group missed two sessions. I managed a pretty weak game of Imperial and a glorious round of Cuba Libre (a game I hoped to deepen my acquaintance with) plus two fine games of 8 Minute Empire.

Getting distracted by running a demo of the Monsters megagame didn't help of course, even though developments in megagaming are now looking very good! There will be an Operation Market Garden megagame on August 30th, possibly a Monsters game later this year in the Netherlands and maybe even a game in Germany next spring.

Did more than enough blogging, even though I haven't had time to write down all my experiences of the workshop on games in education and the few bits of painting I did.

So all in all, I think I need to kick myself in the ass and get going.

Focus, young padawan!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Megagames and LARPs: Food for Thought

Two weeks ago I was invited to do a demonstration of a megagame at the PLAY Masterclass by the Dutch Society of Play. The Society of Play aims at increasing the use of games in Dutch education and heritage institutions. The day provided a number of examples of game forms, but also three interesting talks on the subject.

In the following posts I want to go into a few things that I took away from the talks by Morgan Jarl, a Swede with long experience of designing and running games and especially LARPS. His first talks focused on using LARPs for educational purposes. You can find the presentation slides here.

Short aside: it is good  to realise that there is more to LARP than fake pointy ears and foam swords. Especially in Scandinavia there has been a development towards different settings and more emotionally involving story lines. There is an inspiring  collection of examples from Nordic LARPs available online for free.

Megagames and LARP

Although megagames and LARPs are strands of the larger family of ‘real life gaming’ and that these strands can occasionally come very close (because both focus heavily on human interaction) , there are some general distinctions you could make between the two. LARP which lays more emphasis on immersion, collaboration and artistic vision and such comes closer to theatre. Megagames tend more towards hierarchy, decision making and conflict. But as said, some megagames have come closer to mass role playing and some LARPs contain hierarchies and conflicts.

The different levels of immersion in the role might roughly be described in terms of role and character. Players in megagames generally adopt a role like prime minister, general or staff officer while in LARP they more often adopt a character, where players find further motivation in the personal life. Again, many megagames have personal briefings for players, or invest their personage with additional motives during the game, and this is a generalisation.

You can try to add as much character to a game as you can, but that might not work for your purpose because...

Types of games… and gamers

Morgan identified four types of game, whether they were based on a narrative, on immersion, on simulation or on the mechanics. I then realised that this might match players' preferences for types of games. Some people like story telling, others role playing, others want to recreate and still others focus on mastering the rules and winning. 

I'm used to being on the part of the spectrum where you argue between simulation and mechanics, ie where you balance the model between the two or try to find solutions where you can retain as much of both. But one of the problems in many board and miniature wargames is that you spend your effort on that instead of immersion or narrative and it becomes empty, a pure puzzle and in a sense devoid of meaning.

This is probably why LARPs recruit easily from tabletop rpgs and megagames recruit from boardgames and miniature wargames. But both can relate closely to Ameritrash games because they combine these four elements. In can't see a megagame like Operation Market Garden gaining as enthusiastic a response from the board gaming crowd of Shut Up & Sit Down as Watch the Skies! did.

So a good thing in design is thinking about which groups you want to engage and in what way and how to write it accordingly. Do you go for one type or do you try to cater to several groups?

Game structure

As all games have at least a few rules (if only on conduct and setting), each game needs an introduction or briefing. After the game, it is also necessary to have a debriefing, not only to bring all the strands back together, but also to discuss experiences and learning. 

You can do this as one cycle, but there’s also the possibility of using debriefs halfway through the game or more often to bring every player up to the same level of information or to insert new elements into the game. As an alternative you can do this between games, like in a rpg or miniature wargames campaign. But I like the idea of using this halfway feedback loop in a game.

Next up: learning through games…

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815

Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815
Europe Under Napoleon 1799-1815 by Michael Broers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a great book! Broers offers an overview of Napoleonic Europe, bringing together the experiences from the coasts of the Baltic via the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to the Illyrian.

This is not a book about Napoleon, but about the international system he built out of the revolutionary inheritance. While the first expansion of the French empire had been mostly a result of revolutionary conquest and sister republics, the superiority of French arms between 1800 and 1812 brought new areas into imperial orbit. From 1806 the economic blockade against Great Britain became a driving force behind expansion.

The empire is not so much described as a political unit but as a system of political control in which the relation to the Napoleonic state was determined by the level to which the area was able to produce administrative results: conscripts, taxes and economic blockade of British goods. If the results disappointed, Paris increased control. So while the reforming south German states retained their independence, the Batavian Republic was put under ever closer oversight.

Local elites were forced to choose between collaboration and resistance. The empire offered benefits to its subjects, the most important being public order and equity before the law. Napoleon offered the inclusion of the local elites in his system administration. In easily accessible areas these factors proved powerful enough by themselves to obtain collaboration of the notables.

But there were inherent contradictions in the empire. The economic blockade destroyed many coastal areas. The burden of conscription was felt to be greater than the benefits that the empire brought. In areas where the struggle against the catholic church was unpopular and the terrain offered deserters, smugglers and bandits enough room to evade the marechausées, the imperial hold was strenuous.

The inner empire was not synonymous with France. Western France delivered lower numbers of conscripts than the western bank of the Rhine and Northern Italy.

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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Review: Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon

Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon
Blücher: Scourge of Napoleon by Michael V. Leggiere

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably now the best account of Blücher's life as a commander in English. It didn't shock my view of Blücher after reading Henderson and some other stuff. Blücher was not the charging madman he has sometimes been made to be, but a rational and aggressive commander. Although his great strength lay in the maintenance of the ultimate objective (defeating Napoleon decisively on the battlefield) and inspiration of the men under his command he was clearly more involved in the running of the army than his detractors have suggested.

Driven by his sense of personal pride and urge to show that he loved the Prussian king more than the Prussians he was often more hurt by suggestions of disloyalty on his side or royal disfavour than loss on the battlefield. However, it seems he sought death on the battlefield at Vauchamps at the end of the disastrous week when Napoleon beat his dispersed corps 4 times in 6 days.

Strategically he showed his best during the fall campaign of 1813, when he managed to occupy Napoleon by keeping in close touch and reading his opponents actions well. His pursuit of MacDonald after the Katzbach forced Napoleon to break off the pursuit of the Army of Bohemia and prevented the emperor from moving against Berlin. His move to unite with Bernadotte´s Army of the North was the decisive move of the campaign, but his choice to evade Napoleon by crossing the Saale was of similar brilliance.

In all these cases the question is of course whether the genius was his or Gneisenau´s. To me it appears that Blücher's letters show enough comprehension of the siutation to suggest that he was heavily involved in the decisions. As his moves during 1814 and 1815 show, he was not afraid to try the unconventional, and this seems to have confounded Napoleon.

As one of the few allied commanders not afraid to take on the French emperor himself and because of his ability to draw others along he is probably the single most important military commander on the allied side in the defeat of Napoleon after 1812.

In his personal life he showed many traits of the 'hussar' lifestyle, but he was also a committed husband and father. Leggiere stressed that he also wasn't an uneducated boor, but that the connections made during his period outside the army and especially with the Freemasons, made him socially flexible.

Hats of to Leggiere for this great work, but I think I would have preferred if he had finished his account of the 1814 campaign first.

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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Exciting Megagame News!

All kinds of good news on megagames these days. Of course I had a good demo of the Monsters game Friday a week ago (will provide more info later).

A Global News Network Bulletin

But it gets better. The guys from Shut Up & Sit Down participated in the Watch the Skies megagame in London and were hooked. See the excellent video they made.

Really good impression of what it's like to be in a megagame. Also, the Global News Network bulletins are up on the Megagame Makers facebook page. Fun to read!

There will be a megagame in the Netherlands on August 30. In the spirit of tradition it will be Operation Market Garden, just like we did in 1994 and 2004. The game will run in Nijmegen. Run to the MegagamesNL webpage for more info and registration.

The game will also feature a planning game for the allied HQs to determine the plans of attack and more detailed instructions for Corps Boundaries, Supply Routes, Drop Zones, Landing Zones etc etc. Should be lots of fun!

The next megagame in the UK will be Iron Dice on September 20th, the opening moves of WWI. Highly recommended as well!

Friday, 16 May 2014

Godzilla comes to Amsterdam

No! Not the crappy remake of the movie, but The Game! Designed by Jim Wallman, it first ran in 2002 with man made destruction outdoing Godzilla.

Today I run a smaller version (about a dozen players) as a one and a half hour workshop for professionals in education and culture.

Should be fun!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Panther Camouflage and decals

In the meantime, I've added some camouflage to the Panther tank. The pattern was inspired by an example used in Italy in 1944 (stolen from an Osprey). So it's decals and done.

It took some days before I got to the decals, but the are now applied as well.

And by now the tank has got to the birthday boy!